The pair met in 1985 at Queensborough Community College, in Queens. Denton had bleached-blond hair, safety pins in her ears and the attention of everyone on campus. James was an introvert, a self-confessedly somber, almost depressed person. Somehow they became best friends and, later, partners in the Salt-n-Pepa Corp. (Roper, as Spinderella, is an employee.)
Through it all, Denton and James have stayed the closest of friends. When Denton had her son, Tyran, James was her Lamaze coach. After the birth, James went into the hallway and cried uncontrollably.
This makes you wonder whether the group could ever suddenly end. The strength, remember, is in the differences. But sometimes these differences create problems. For one, Denton is defensive about being portrayed as just a party girl. "There is a business side to me and a spiritual side," she says. Practically speaking, the problems are small points to be laughed about between best friends. Let them grow, however, and they might just stretch Salt-n-Pepa to the breaking point.
"I'm spiritual, too, but 'Gitty Up' is a great song, know what I mean?" says Denton when the issue is raised. So what really happened when James said that she next wants to make a gospel or inspirational SNP album or no album at all? "I was very quiet when she said that," says Denton. "This is my life. I don't want to stop here. Cheryl's planning on breaking contracts and all kinds of stuff with that attitude."
James has a simple answer. "God," she says, "is bigger than contracts."
In the beginning was the word – words, actually – and the words all belonged to Hurby "Luv Bug" Azor. So did the music. Virtually everything did. Azor was even, for a short while, going to be Pepa.
"You wanna know what's real funny?" asks Azor. "The original Salt-n-Pepa was gonna be me and Martin Lawrence. He couldn't rap, so that died out. Then it became me and Cheryl. But then I said, 'Hey, it would be better if there were two girls.' I was brainstorming all the way around."
Azor and James were boyfriend and girlfriend. She was light-skinned (Salt), and he was dark-skinned (Pepa). Both worked at a Sears in College Point, Queens. Martin Lawrence worked there, too. So did Kid 'n Play. And, of course, Denton; James had gotten her the job. Soon, James and Azor came to Denton with the offer to be Pepa, and a hip-hop band was born. Calling themselves Supernature, the three released a single, "The Showstoppa," before changing their name to Salt-n-Pepa.
"I don't like to say it, but they just took direction," says Azor of the group's beginnings. "It was almost ridiculous. I had the dance steps, clothing, hair. What the hell?"
But he adds: "I knew they had it. They had what it took to do it."
An album deal followed, but things were still rough. For one, the group wasn't always comfortable with Azor's lyrics. To this day, says James, the line "If she wanna be a freak and sell it on the weekends" (taken, ironically, from "None of Your Business," the only SNP song ever to win a Grammy) makes her "gag." But the main problem was that Denton and Azor had completely fallen out. According to Denton, Azor twice threatened to kick her out of SNP: once when she was late for a show, the other when she scoffed at his demand that she use her own royalty points to pay Roper's salary.
"At the time, they were a couple, and Cheryl didn't pay," says Denton. "Only I ended up paying points for this girl, for Spin. I did it. But I never let that go. Cheryl says, 'I want to give you back the money,' because she knows I took that through this whole career with me."
Azor doesn't dispute the claim: "Yeah, that's all true. But she's gotta tell you why. If I'm sitting in a parking lot, and you're late because you decided to make a detour with your boyfriend, I have a problem with that. Her boyfriend was giving her trouble, and she brought the trouble to the band. Take that shit somewhere else. So I said, 'I can replace your ass.' "
Denton stayed. What deteriorated was Azor and James' relationship. "Hurby was like a Svengali to me," says James. "We were boyfriend and girlfriend; he was my manager; he was my producer; he was my world. I was wrapped up in him. Too much. It wasn't healthy."
To make matters worse, Azor was less than faithful. After things had passed the breaking point, he had a child with another woman, and his partnership with James was over. "I knew I couldn't fix it," Azor says. "I wasn't at the point in my life where I wasn't going to not mess with every girl that caught my eye."
The year was 1990. Remarkably, the group stayed together. "How did we do that?" asks Azor. "We all had bills." He laughs. "What do you want me to tell you?" The end, however, was in sight. Salt-n-Pepa began fighting even more over creative control.
"Hurby's a talented man, but it comes to a point that you have to understand that we are talented also," says James. "He could have gotten other groups and be out there just reigning supreme if it was all about Hurby."
Finally, for 1993's Very Necessary, the two sides split the album down the middle. Azor's hit was "Whatta Man"; the women's was "Shoop," the only one of their selections that Azor liked. "All their other songs we fought over," says Azor. "I hated them."
For Brand New, Azor did not come to the table. He still receives one-third of the profits (originally, his royalties were one-half, but that changed in 1993), but he decided that, creatively, enough was enough. "I felt that if they wanted to be free, they should be free all the way," he says. "If it works, it's all yours. If it fails, it's all yours."
They have led us through some horrendous fashion periods, Salt-n-Pepa, so it seems only fair to request a tour.
"We were very confused," says Denton. "We've had so many bad ones."
"We were looking at some old pictures, and I just started cracking up," says James. "We were in tears."
"The Madonna period was pretty bad," offers Roper.
"And the trendy one where I used to wear the big hat," says James. "Oh."
"The funny glasses," says Roper.
We are clearly on a roll.
"Color contacts," yells Denton. "Asymmetrical haircuts . . . the ghetto haircuts." She laughs. "The polka dots."
James looks offended. "The polka dots were cute when they were out," she says.
"I have a feeling, in a few years we'll look back at now and laugh again," says Roper.
"I know I'll laugh at this curly red hair one day," says James. She seems to be over the polka-dot comment.
"The funny thing is," says Denton, "in a lot of those pictures, we actually look older."
James leans back in her chair: "You know what? Less is more." She nods her head thoughtfully. "That's what we learned," she says. "Less is more."
All right, I want a big diva finish," yells Cheryl James.
It is rehearsal time for tonight's Vibe TV performance, and, as usual, Salt-n-Pepa are falling into their respective roles. James, the mother, is directing; Denton, the wild aunt, is dancing across the stage even though the music has stopped; and Roper, the daughter, is off to the side, sucking her thumb.
It's a habit that Roper indulges in when she is left alone, a strange metaphor for her position in a band in which, after 10 years, she admits to still feeling like the new kid. When she first joined the group, she literally was a kid. Her parents wouldn't let her sign on. James, Denton and Azor sat down with the Ropers in order to convince them that their baby would be safe. The band hired a tutor, and, after shows, Roper would cry in her room because she had a curfew.
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